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The endocrine effects of mercury in humans and wildlife

Mercury (Hg) is well studied and research continues as our knowledge of its health risks increases. One expanding area of research not well emphasized to date is the endocrine effects of Hg. This review summarizes the existing literature on the effects of Hg on the endocrine system and identifies gaps in the knowledge. It focuses on the thyroid, adrenal, and reproductive systems, including the accumulation of Hg in the endocrine system, sex differences that are manifested with Hg exposure, reproductive effects in male and female animals including humans, and Hg effects on the thyroid and adrenal systems. We concluded that there are five main endocrine-related mechanisms of Hg across these systems: (a) accumulation in the endocrine system; (b) specific cytotoxicity in endocrine tissues; (c) changes in hormone concentrations; (d) interactions with sex hormones; and (e) up-regulation or down-regulation of enzymes within the steroidogenesis pathway. Recommendations for key areas of research to better understand how the endocrine effects of Hg affect human and wildlife health were developed, and include increasing the amount of basic biological information available about Hg and wildlife species, exploring the role of Hg in the presence of other stressors and chemicals, understanding sublethal and indirect effects of Hg on adverse outcomes, developing better methods to extrapolate effects across species, and understanding the effects of Hg on multiple organ systems following exposure of an animal. Greater inclusion of endocrine endpoints in epidemiological and field studies on humans and wildlife will also advance the research in this area.